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Mormon Sunstone

Construction of the ill-fated Nauvoo Temple began in 1841, and it was one of the first built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As it was constructed over the next few years, the temple was adorned with sunstones, moonstones and starstones; there were 30 of each. But between arson in 1848 and a tornado in 1850, the original temple did not stand long.

In 1989, the Smithsonian purchased one of only two known surviving sunstones (or stones carved to resemble the sun) that were from the Nauvoo Temple for $100,000. The sunstone is massive -- about 5,000 pounds, or 2,300 kilograms -- and features a face carved into a sun that is materializing from a bank of clouds. Two carved trumpets sound above.

The Smithsonian has rarely made such pricey acquisitions, but the curator of the division of community life believed the piece holds special significance. It represents the successful struggle to found a new religion (one of only a few that can claim American origins) and denotes a central event in the Mormons' early push for acceptance and the right to practice their religious beliefs.

On the next page, we'll look at the lighter side of the Smithsonian's penchant for pocketing even the most random items from the annals of our nation's past.

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